How to Encourage Roleplaying

Bloggers Roundtable of DOOM!

Lex Starwalker asked a group of Cypher System bloggers to discuss various topics in roleplaying games. He asked James August Walls, Marc Plourde, Scott Robinson, and me, to all address the same roleplaying topics. Lex himself would chime in as well. For January, we all get to respond to the following question:

gold drama mask“How would you, as GM, encourage roleplaying in a player who doesn’t roleplay as much as you’d like, whether it’s roleplaying with NPCs, being more descriptive in combat, or referring to themselves in the third person? If you want to take the roleplaying at your table to the next level, how do you get your players on board?

Before I start pontificating on my own ideas, I thought I’d share what my players said when I asked them the same question:

Drama Masks 1Leslie said I think there are two things that made me feel comfortable testing the role playing waters – and here role playing means exactly that, playing the role of a character vs. playing the RPG game (which I’ve done for years).

First, having other players that do it really helps. This group made role playing the characters the norm. This created positive pressure without me feeling like “I had to” in order to enjoy the session. Its the best kind of peer pressure.

The GM did a great job of creating “space” at the table for characters to be played. It was rewarded not only socially, but mechanically in the game through incentives that were meaningful, but not critical to me being successful as a player.

Drama Masks 2Matthew (who has just started GMing Numenera) said Learn what each player finds motivating for playing in character, and what takes them out of it. Then you can play to various strengths and avoid those detractors. Does a player find the grind of dungeon crawling boring? Does counting and calculating costs to perform actions boggle them and take them out of character? Does a player withdraw when their skillset isn’t useful for the game? Add specific moments that are personal for each character, to bring someone back into character.

After my all of one day GMing, I’ve noticed that different characters are more interested in certain subplots than others, and I’ll work to include those characters more into the subplots they like.

Drama Masks 3James (who is also an Edge of the Empire GM) said Be an encouraging GM. That is, a good GM never says “no” or “you’re wrong” to a player. If you want roleplaying and creativity from your players, you encourage them to make things up, and if those ideas aren’t quite up to snuff, you roll your own creativity into it and help the player make their idea better… even if you’re totally going to murder them all later anyway. 🙂

I had my players posing as repair workers on a ship they were thinking about stealing. They learned that the ship had a backup control center hidden off the bridge, and they’d need to find and disable it before they could steal the ship. One player was having a hard time getting into the RP aspects as she searched for clues as to where it might be, and I kept encouraging her to just roleplay any idea she wanted for how she’d find the hidden location. Finally she went with “I see a big red line on the floor going down the hallway from the bridge into a particular room.”

Now, obviously, this isn’t the most “plausible” way to find a secret bridge, but I ran with it, and basically “covered” for the idea. “Ah yes,” I said, “with your thermal goggles down, you see a red glow, highlighting a suspiciously warm series of deck plates leading to an otherwise innocuous looking cabin. It seems a large number of energy conduits are routing from the bridge to here.”

Bottom line, there should be no bad ideas.

crying maskNicole (who also GMs from time to time) said If you hope for your players to rp, then rp your NPCs as well! Hardly a player can resist to answer in character, when an NPC addresses them in first-person speech, modified voice, mannerisms of shaking the head and an obvious lisp.

gold drama maskWriting a gaming blog is like GMing. Just listen to your players. The big stuff having been said, I’ll just add a few ideas:

For me system matters. Highly crunchy rpgs with minimal support for storytelling engage the part of my brain that used to do computer programming all day. I find myself thinking about rules, tables, and numbers. I find it much easier to roleplay as a player and as a GM in more storytelling focused rpgs, such as Numenera. As someone whose played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, I’m very happy to see games like 13th Age, Dungeon World, and 5E that support storytelling.

There is no one right way to play an RPG. You’ll never get everyone to roleplay at the same level. Some players are less comfortable improving than others. Some may be worried that they will “do it wrong.” Others just haven’t come up with an idea they think is useful. Encourage, model, but don’t force.

Happy gaming!

Using Fronts in Numenera and The Strange

Ever notice when you’re reading a great book or watching a great movie or TV show how tense everything gets? You are on the edge of your seat because the characters you are rooting for are under tremendous stress and the stakes are sky-high.

How do you bring that to your game?

CoverOne trick I use is called “fronts,” a concept I stole from the dungeon bashing game called Dungeon World. Like Numenera and The Strange, Dungeon World is rules light and focuses on story telling. Its aim is to create great stories of heroic adventurers in a medieval fantasy setting without the rules getting in the way. Here’s an online version of the rules.

While the game mechanics aren’t at all like the cypher system, the use of fronts to create tension comes across beautifully. A front is a set of problems (called dangers) that will only get worse if the player characters don’t solve them. There is usually more than one danger, so while the PCs work on one, the others fester and grow worse. This forces the players to prioritize and make hard choices.

Throw in multiple fronts, each with their own dangers, and watch the PCs sweat!

Here’s an example I call Bantion, Village in Peril.

First I have to choose between a campaign front and an adventure front. A campaign front is a big, long running front. Say how The Convergence (Numenera) or Lotan (The Strange) are going to devastate nations.

ruinsA shorter term front is an adventure front, and Bantion, Village in Peril is an adventure front. The problem with Bantion is that it is built into ancient ruins. Yes the ruins provide shelter and a source of cyphers or magic, but they also provide the dangers. The village could be in The Beyond or the hinterlands of Ardeyn. To keep things simple I’m going to use Numenera examples, but the basic story elements can work just as well in The Strange.

A front has two to three dangers, so I’ll choose two. Both involve mental powers and villagers acting strange, which will probably confuse the PCs. Yay!

For my first danger I’ll choose a cursed place that wants brains. The Chamber of Unity, deep in the ruins below Bantion, has recently been activated. It seeks to unify people into a hive mind. To do that, it wants everyone’s brains to be taken out and placed in a big soup of nutrients and nanites. It uses mental powers to force people to do its bidding. Those people become angry and emotional.

The second danger will be a nano seeking mental powers. Kavlon the Seeker has found a way to build his mental powers by injecting himself with nanites grown in brainstems of psychic parasites. First he’ll create hosts out of villagers, and then after the parasite kills off the hosts, he’ll harvest the brainstems. A win-win! To create a contrast, the hosts will lose all affect and become emotionless.

OK, we have two dangers, now what? For each danger we come up with 1 – 3 grim portents. A grim portent is something bad that happens if PCs don’t defeat the danger. This way, if the PCs are out fighting Kavlon, the Chamber of Unity will be ticking off its grim portents.

Here are the grim portents for the Chamber of Unity:
1. Villagers vanish (they sleepwalk to the chamber)
2. Scapegoating: Paranoid villagers turn on one another, guards arrest many “troublemakers” (guards are under the influence of the Chamber and deliver the prisoners there)
3. People rounded up en-mass and driven to the chamber

Besides grim portents, each danger has an impending doom that happens if all the portents get ticked off because the PCs didn’t defeat the danger.

For the Chamber of Unity, the impending doom is that the entire village will be emptied into the brain soup. Yay!

And for Kalvon, the grim portents are:
1. Villagers become hosts to the parasites and become affectless
2. Hosts vanish to be replaced by new hosts
3. Mass grave of dead hosts discovered

And the doom? Kalvon’s mental powers become such that he makes all villagers thralls or experimental subjects. Or both. Yay!

How do you GM this? Pick one or both of the dangers and set off the first grim portent. Then just follow the players. While one danger gets worked on, the other ticks off another grim portent.

Have fun.

(For those following along with the Dungeon World rules, the Chamber of Unity is a Cursed Place, a Shadowland. The Doom is Destruction. Kalvon is an Arcane Enemy, a Power Mad Wizard seeking magical power. His doom is Tyranny.)